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o serial port on your PC? No problem! To add a serial port, attach a USB/serial adapter to a USB port. This article focuses on the PC side of serial port communications. Ill show how to use Visual Basic .NET to access serial ports, including USB virtual serial ports.

Serial Ports and COM Ports

A serial port is a computer interface that transmits bits one at a time. The interface can have as few as three lines: one to carry data in each direction plus a ground line. Many interfaces have up to six additional lines to carry status and control information. Unlike some serial interfaces, the standard RS-232 serial interface on PCs doesnt include a clock line. Instead, the computers at both ends of the cable each provide a clock. The computers must agree on a bit rate for transferring data, and a Start bit synchronizes the clocks before each transmitted byte. RS-232 is a hardware interface that transmits 0s and 1s as positive and negative voltages. A typical RS-232 cable can be up to 100 ft long. Interface chips such as Maxims MAX232 converts between 5V logic and RS-232 voltages.

On a PC, serial ports appear as numbered COM ports that applications can read and write to. These days, most standard peripherals connect via USB, and many PCs dont have built-in serial ports. You can add an RS-232 port to any recent PC, however, by attaching a USB/RS-232 adapter module. Your favorite PC hardware vendor likely has a selection to choose from. For each adapter, Windows creates a USB virtual COM port that applications can access just like built-in serial ports. If you dont want to use an external adapter, you can perform the conversion inside the device by adding a USB/serial bridge chip to your design. FTDIs FT232R is an example of a bridge chip.

Selecting a Port
Figure 1 shows a Windows form for an application that uses a serial port to control an LED on a remote device. (The full Visual Basic project is available from and my website, Combo boxes enable selecting a COM port and bit rate. Clicking the ON or OFF button sends a command to turn an LED on the remote device on or off. A label displays a message about the state of the LED as reported by the device. This example can serve as a framework for developing applications that monitor and control other external devices. Microsofts Visual Basic .NET, including the free Express edition, includes a SerialPort class for accessing COM ports. Other .NET languages such as Visual C# can use the class, as well.
FIGURE 1. Clicking a button sends a command and displays a response.


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In applications that use the SerialPort class, include an Imports statement to avoid having to specify the namespace each time you use a class member. Place the statement at the top of the file, preceding the Module or Class statement and following any Option statements:
Imports System.IO.Ports

Before you can access a port, you need to create a SerialPort object. This statement creates a SerialPort object called myComPort:
Dim myComPort As New SerialPort

Listing 1 shows a routine that finds COM ports on the system and sets a default port and other parameters. To run the routine when the application starts, call the routine in the Form_Load event. The SerialPort classs GetPortNames method returns an array of the names of all of the PCs COM ports. The arrays elements arent guaranteed to be in alphabetical order, but the Array.Sort method can sort the names if needed. The SelectedIndex property sets the default COM port. The cmbPorts combo box displays the COM ports. The cmbBitRate combo box lists the supported bit rates. The SelectedItem property sets the default bit rate.

box appears describing the problem. The CloseComPort routine (Listing 3) closes an open port and releases its resources. The forms FormClosing event can call this routine to close the port when the application ends. The routine waits for any transmitting bytes to finish transmitting or a timeout. The Using blocks End Using statement closes myComPort and disposes of its resources. Closing a port can take up to a few seconds, so applications and users should delay a bit between closing a port and re-opening the same one. When a user selects a new COM port in the cmbPorts combo box, the combo boxs SelectedIndexChanged event executes. Placing this code in the events routine closes the previously selected COM port if needed, sets myComPorts PortName
Sub InitializeForm() Dim bitRates(9) As Integer Dim nameArray() As String

LISTING 1. Combo boxes on the form enable users to select a port and bit rate.

Find the COM ports on the system. nameArray = SerialPort.GetPortNames Array.Sort(nameArray) Fill a combo box with the port names. cmbPorts.DataSource = nameArray cmbPorts.DropDownStyle = _ ComboBoxStyle.DropDownList Select a default port. cmbPorts.SelectedIndex = 1 Bit rates to select from. bitRates(0) bitRates(1) bitRates(2) bitRates(3) bitRates(4) bitRates(5) bitRates(6) bitRates(7) bitRates(8) bitRates(9) = = = = = = = = = = 300 600 1200 2400 9600 14400 19200 38400 57600 115200

Accessing a Port
The OpenComPort routine (Listing 2) sets port parameters and attempts to open the selected port. The routine sets myComPorts PortName and BaudRate properties to match the selections in the combo boxes. (For the purposes of this discussion, the bit rate and baud rate are the same thing.) For other properties such as the number of data bits and parity type, the routine sets values. To enable users to change these properties, you can add combo boxes that offer options for these properties. The ReadTimeout and WriteTimeout values set the number of milliseconds the application will wait when attempting to read or write to the port. For read operations, the timeout sets how long the application will wait for data after calling a read method. For write operations, the timeout sets how long the application will wait to finish a write operation. Flow-control methods can delay writing to a port if the receiving computer isnt ready to accept data. Before reading or writing to a port, the application must open a connection to the port. The Open method opens a connection to the port named in the PortName property. If the selected port doesnt exist, is already open, or cant be opened for another reason, a message

Place the bit rates in a combo box. cmbBitRate.DataSource = bitRates cmbBitRate.DropDownStyle = _ ComboBoxStyle.DropDownList Select a default bit rate. cmbBitRate.SelectedItem = 1200 End Sub
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Sub OpenComPort() Try Get the selected COM ports name from the combo box. If Not myComPort.IsOpen Then myComPort.PortName = _ cmbPorts.SelectedItem.ToString Get the selected bit rate from the combo box. If cmbBitRate.SelectedIndex > 0 Then myComPort.BaudRate = _ CInt(cmbBitRate.SelectedItem) End If Set other port parameters. myComPort.Parity = Parity.None myComPort.DataBits = 8 myComPort.StopBits = StopBits.One myComPort.Handshake = Handshake.None myComPort.ReadTimeout = 3000 myComPort.WriteTimeout = 5000 Open the port. myComPort.Open() End If Catch ex As InvalidOperationException MessageBox.Show(ex.Message) Catch ex As UnauthorizedAccessException MessageBox.Show(ex.Message) Catch ex As System.IO.IOException MessageBox.Show(ex.Message) End Try End Sub

property to match the new selected port, and opens the selected port:
CloseComPort() myComPort.PortName = _ cmbPorts.SelectedItem.ToString OpenComPort()

When a user selects a new bit rate in the cmbBitRate combo box, the combo boxs SelectedIndexChanged event executes. Placing this code in the events routine sets myComPorts BaudRate property to match the selected bit rate:
myComPort.BaudRate = _ CInt(cmbBitRate.SelectedItem)

Each button on the form has a click event, which calls the SendCommand routine to send a command to the COM port. Place this code in the ON buttons click event to send the command L11:

The first two bytes (L1) identify LED 1 on the device. The third byte 1 tells the device to turn on LED 1. Place this code in the OFF buttons click event to send L10 to tell the device to turn off LED 1:

LISTING 2. Before transferring data, the application must set port parameters and open a connection to the port.

Sub CloseComPort() Using myComPort If (Not (myComPort Is Nothing)) Then The COM port exists. If myComPort.IsOpen Then Wait for the transmit buffer to empty. Do While (myComPort.BytesToWrite > 0) Loop End If End If End Using End Sub
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Listing 4 is the SendCommand routine. The WriteLine method writes the command and a linefeed (LF) code (0Ah) to the port. Using the SerialPort classs default encoding, each text character transmits as an eight-bit ASCII code. The application waits to receive a response that ends with an LF. On receiving a response, a label on the form (lblStatus) displays a message. If the device doesnt respond after the number of milliseconds in ReadTimeout, a message box displays an error message. You can request other actions from the remote device by modifying or adding to the commands and responses. To automate the communications, a Timer components Tick event can send commands at intervals.

Detecting Received Data

In the example application, the device sends data only when the PC application requests it. If your device sends data at unpredictable times, the DataReceived event can detect data when it arrives.

LISTING 3. The End Using statement closes the port and disposes of its resources.

Listing 5 shows how to use the event to retrieve data. The SerialPort classs DataReceived code runs in a different program thread. For this reason, if you retrieve received data in a DataReceived event and want to display the data on the applications form, you need to define a delegate to pass the data to the form. For an example of how to do so, see the ComPortTerminal example at Another way to detect received data is to use a Timer component to check for new data at intervals.

for reading and writing text. To send a string without appending an LF, use the Write method. The Write method can also write a Char array to a port. The
Private Sub SendCommand(ByVal command As String) Dim response As String Try myComPort.WriteLine(command) response = myComPort.ReadLine Select Case response Case 0 lblStatus.Text = LED 1 is OFF Case 1 lblStatus.Text = LED 1 is ON Case Else End Select Catch ex As TimeoutException MessageBox.Show(ex.Message) Catch ex As InvalidOperationException MessageBox.Show(ex.Message) Catch ex As UnauthorizedAccessException MessageBox.Show(ex.Message) End Try End Sub

More on Transferring Text

The example application sends and receives data including numbers as codes that represent text characters. For example, to send 1, the port transmits the byte 31h (00110001), which is the ASCII code for the character 1. To send 111, the port transmits 31h three times; once for each character in the number. Treating data as text is the obvious choice for transferring strings or files that contain text. To transfer numeric values, one option is to send the bytes as text in ASCII hex format. Any byte value can be expressed as a pair of hexadecimal (base 16) characters where the letters AF represent values from 10 to 15. For example, consider the decimal number 225. Expressed as a binary value, its (2^7) + (2^6) +(2^5) +(2^0), or: 11100001. In hexadecimal, its E1. The ASCII codes for the characters E and 1 expressed in hexadecimal are: 45 31. So the binary representation of E1h in ASCII hex consists of these two bytes: 01000101 00110001. A serial link using ASCII hex format sends the decimal value 225 by transmitting the two bytes above. A computer that receives ASCII hex values can convert the characters to numeric values or use the data as-is. An advantage to ASCII hex is being able to represent any byte value using just 16 ASCII codes. The values 30h39h represent the characters 09, and 41h46h represent the characters AF. Code that allows lower-case letters uses 61h66h to represent af. All of the other values are available for alternate uses, such as software flow-control codes or an end-of-file indicator. Because the ASCII hex codes are all less than 80h, a serial link transmitting these values can save a little time by ignoring the high bit and transmitting seven-bit values. Listing 6 shows Visual Basic functions for converting between binary values and ASCII hex strings. Listing 4 used WriteLine and ReadLine to exchange data. The SerialPort class provides several other options
LISTING 5. The DataReceived event can detect and retrieve received data.

LISTING 4. The SendCommand routine sends a text command to the COM port and waits for a response.

Define the event handler for received data. Private SerialDataReceivedEventHandler1 _ As New SerialDataReceivedEventHandler _ (AddressOf DataReceived) Specify the routine that runs when a DataReceived event occurs at myComPort. AddHandler myComPort.DataReceived, _ SerialDataReceivedEventHandler1 This routine runs when data arrives at myComPort. Friend Sub DataReceived(ByVal sender As Object, _ ByVal e As SerialDataReceivedEventArgs) Dim newReceivedData As String Get data from the COM port. newReceivedData = myComPort.ReadExisting Console.WriteLine(newReceivedData) End Sub
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Private Function ConvertAsciiHexToByte _ (ByVal asciiHexToConvert As String) As Byte Dim convertedValue As Byte convertedValue = Convert.ToByte(asciiHexToConvert, 16) Return convertedValue End Function Private Function ConvertByteToAsciiHex _ (ByVal byteToConvert As Byte) As String

Future Technology Devices International Limited (FTDI) USB/serial bridge chips Maxim Integrated Products RS-232 and RS-485 interface chips Microsoft Visual Basic Express Edition

LISTING 6. These functions convert convertedValue = Hex$(byteToConvert) between byte Return convertedValue values and ASCII hex strings that End Function represent the bytes.

Dim convertedValue As String

ReadExisting method in Listing 5 returns immediately with everything in the receive buffer or an empty string if the buffer is empty. The ReadTo method is like ReadLine but enables defining any character as the delimiter. The Read method copies received characters into a Char array. If those options arent enough, you can use the SerialPort objects BaseStream property to obtain a Stream object for transferring text data. For more on any of these methods, see .NETs Help.

The SerialPort class provides two methods for reading bytes. The Read method can copy a specified number of received bytes from the receive buffer into a byte array beginning at a specified offset. This example reads up to three received bytes, stores the bytes beginning at offset 0 in the byteBuffer array, and displays the result:
Dim byteBuffer() As Byte = {0, 0, 0} myComPort.Read(byteBuffer, 0, 3)

Transferring Binary Data

A disadvantage of using ASCII for numeric data is that each byte value uses two characters, so data takes twice as long to transfer. Also, in most cases the application at each end must convert between hex and binary. With binary data, values arent converted to text characters. The decimal value 1 transmits as 00000001 rather than as the ASCII code for the character 1. With binary data, any value from 0 to 255 can transmit as a single byte. When sending or receiving binary data, the SerialPort object assumes nothing about what the values mean. A way to transmit binary data is to place the bytes in an array. This example creates a three-byte array and writes the arrays contents to a port:
Dim byteBuffer(2) As Byte byteBuffer(0) = 85 byteBuffer(1) = 83 byteBuffer(2) = 66 myComPort.Write(byteBuffer, 0, 3)

The Read method doesnt wait for the specified number of bytes to arrive but returns when there is at least one received byte. If no bytes arrive, the method times out when the ReadTimeout time has elapsed. Another option for reading bytes is the ReadByte method, which reads one byte at a time:
Dim receivedByte As Integer receivedByte = myComPort.ReadByte

The ReadByte method reads a byte but returns an Integer with its high bytes set to zero. As with text data, Stream objects are another option for transferring binary data.

Moving On
Next time, well look at serial communications for microcontrollers. Ill show how to program a PIC microcontroller to detect and respond to commands received over a serial port. NV

Contact the Author

Jan Axelson is the author of Serial Port Complete, now in its second edition. Jans website is


April 2008